One of the hazards of having lived a life where division has been a frequent part of one’s experience in institutions, and where the fear of civil war has long been present in one’s own society and frequently in one’s travels is a frequent interest in matters of the internal cohesion of institutions. How is it that institutions can overcome persistent internal divisions? What options are available to build cohesion and allow for survival as well as even expansion? These are questions I ponder to myself, even if they do not seem like the sort of questions that interest the writers and thinkers of my time. To be honest, a great deal of contemporary thought consists of condemning those who are on the opposite sides of lines than we are, and in pointing out the ways that people both now and in the past were wicked by our own moral standards and thus unworthy of our respect and esteem. Such thinking certainly does not help matters. It does not, for example, further the cause of contemporary unity by condemning those in the past for power rape of the local womenfolk for one reason or another, or by thinking that it is only straight white men that are capable of evil, something I tend to take (understandably so) rather personally.
In generations past–including the 1940’s in the United States–foreign war offered a chance for glory that served to unify a nation that could easily have been deeply divided. Whether French nobles who could have been unhappy about growing royal centralization, their devotion to la glorie allowed generations of French soldiers to threaten the well-being of European (and other) people. The history of English-French relations in the twelfth through fifteenth centuries demonstrates that when the two nations were not at war over the various claims of sovereignty, one or both of them was involved in internal conflict against peasant revolts or with overmighty subjects. The alternative to internal conflict was external conflict. The pressure and violence of society had to be released in some fashion. Either it was released internally in civil disorder or one kind or another or it was to be directed into aggression at others, with the potential of serving the interests of the realm if not the well-being of those who were the recipients of such violence.
And not much has changed throughout the course of human history. The sudden rise of Arab power in the 7th century was due in large part to the immense internal violence of the Arabian peninsula being directed under unified authority at the outside world for loot and plunder and conquest. The same was true of American energies in the periods before and after the Civil War, being directed at other nations for the point of seizing their territory. Even the internal tensions of the Great Depression and related social problems in the United States and other nations were directed externally with fateful consequences during World War II. The resolution of internal periods of crisis has long been associated with external pushes that lead to domination and the creation of new internal crises subsequent to those conquests. China’s eighteenth century conquests of areas have led to internal problems from the 19th century onward in areas like Tibet and the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang. England’s conquests of Wales and then Ireland led to longstanding problems with restive populations. These problems are not uncommon–Chile’s expansion southward led to the conquest of the Mapuche people, and it is unsurprising that what was a long external war was continued by an internal problem with the same people. Russia’s conquests led to internal conflicts with many of the people that were conquered. Spain’s efforts at expansion and the removal of local autonomy in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries led to predictable and long-lasting problems with autonomy in regions like Galicia, the Basque country, and Catalonia. And on and on we look. External wars, if they are successful, bring into a state restive and unfriendly populations which disrupt the internal peace, even as external wars are often conducted in order to help bring about internal peace.
Our efforts at resolving these internal tensions are therefore often self-defeating. We mean different things by our claims for identity, and have many different layers of identity that we can claim in one way or another. To the extent that federalism within the American tradition was strong, the central government made few claims on the loyalty of ordinary citizens except in cases of foreign war or high politics. A general degree of polite focus on very narrow parochial concerns can be mistaken for a high degree of unity even among very diverse peoples united only loosely together. Attempts to increase that unity and increase the demands of the center on the periphery can reveal the real divisions that exist and make the institution less stable. A looser union could have been maintained with few problems, but a tighter union demands more similarity and that is problematic in many institutions where there are strong divides by region or among different populations within a given community. The same is even true among families, where a loose union may have the appearance of harmony but where efforts at tightening control reveal a great deal of hostility.
History and our own contemporary problems suggest there are few good responses to such internal divisions as exist on all levels of our society. Polite silence tends to minimize the divisions rather than inflame them, but it can lead to a false impression of unity where there is only the resolute determination not to start an unnecessary fight. Externally oriented conflicts and crusades only turn the violence outward and do not resolve the divisions that are present internally. And when the conquest or acquisition is over, one still has to deal with the aftermath of that violence and divide the spoils in such a way as not to inflame even more internal conflict. One might be tempted to rely on one’s communication skills to build unity, but sometimes communication makes divisions sharper rather than easing them. Sometimes the more we know about what someone thinks or believes or how they behave the less we are able to get along with them, which is obviously contrary to the point of trying to communicate in order to build clarity. And if silence, communication, and violence are all unacceptable, what are we left to do in order to feel less divided against ourselves? Will we be motivated to show the empathy and love that can help bind up the wounds of people who have suffered from divided institutions, even if we do not always understand them or agree with them when we do? Oh, what a mess we are in, with scarcely a clue on how we are to extricate ourselves from it.